A model for the (chemistry) practical curriculum

Yesterday’s post discussed our recent work in thinking about how to build experimental design into the teaching laboratory. This post is related, but aims to think about the overall laboratory teaching curriculum.

I’ve been thinking about this and have Tina Overton’s mantra ringing in my head: what do we want the students to be at the end of it? So, what do we want students to be at the end of a practical curriculum? I think many of us will have varying answers, but there’s a couple of broad themes, which we can assemble thanks to the likes of Tamir (1976), Kirschner and Meester (1992), and Carnduff and Reid (2003, or Reid and Shah, 2007, more accessible).

Tamir considers the is of practical work should include –take a deep breath: skills (e.g., manipulative, inquiry, investigative, organizational, communicative), concepts (e.g., data, hypothesis, theoretical model, taxonomic category), cognitive abilities (e.g., critical thinking, problem solving, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, decision making, creativity), understanding the nature of science (e.g., the scientific enterprise, the scientists and how they work, the existence of a multiplicity of scientific methods, the interrelationships between science and technology and among various disciplines of science) and attitudes (e.g., curiosity, interest, risk taking, objectivity, precision, perseverance, satisfaction, responsibility, consensus and collaboration, confidence in scientific knowledge, self-reliance, liking science.)1

Kirschner and Meester list the aims as being: to formulate hypotheses, to solve problems, to use knowledge and skills in unfamiliar situations, to design simple experiments to test hypotheses, to use laboratory skills in performing (simple) experiments, to interpret experimental data, to describe clearly the experiment and to remember the central idea of an experiment over a significantly long period of time.2

And Reid presents the desired outcomes in terms of four skill types: skills relating to learning chemistry, practical skills, scientific skills, and general (meaning transferable) skills.3

So we can see some commonalities, but each have a slightly different perspective. In trying to grapple with the aims of practical work, and think about how they are introduced across a curriculum, I came up with the diagram below a few years ago, recently modified for the Scottish system (we have 5 years instead of 4). This model especially focuses on the concept of “nature of science”, which I consider is the overarching desire for practical work, encompassing the concept of “syntactical knowledge” described in yesterday’s post.

5 year curriculum overview

The intention is that each year of the curriculum adds on a new layer. Each year incorporates the year below, but includes a new dimension. So students in Year 3 will become exposed to Experimental Design (Familiar), but they’ll still be developing skills and exploring models/hypotheses.

I’ve shown this model to students at various stages, and they seem to like it. The sense of progression is obvious, and it is clear what the additional demand will be. In fact their reaction this year was so positive that it struck me that we should really share our curriculum design model (whatever it may be) with students, so there is clarity about expectation and demand. So I will include this model in lab manuals in future years. That way, it’s not just that each year is “harder” (or as is often the case, not harder at all, just longer experiments) but the exact focus is identified. They can see (their) ultimate target of final year project, although I think that perhaps we should, with Tina in mind again, have something on the top platform, stating the desired attributes on graduation.

I’d be interested in opinions on this model. One challenge it raises is how to make labs in the earlier years more interesting, and I think the intentional incorporation of interesting chemistry, decision making, and documenting skill development will help in that regard. Thoughts?!


  1. Tamir, P. The role of the laboratory in science teaching; University of Iowa: 1976.
  2. Kirschner, P. A.; Meester, M. A. M., The laboratory in higher science education: Problems, premises and objectives. Higher Education 1988, 17 (1), 81-98.
  3. (a) Carnduff, J.; Reid, N., Enhancing undergraduate chemistry laboratories: pre-laboratory and post-laboratory exercises. Royal Society of Chemistry: 2003; (b) Reid, N.; Shah, I., The role of laboratory work in university chemistry. Chemistry Education Research and Practice 2007, 8 (2), 172-185.